Jonathan Glazer made quite an impact with his impressive debut, Sexy Beast – a Brit gangster film that brought a refreshing sense of style and originality to an already tired genre. The stylistic flourishes are less evident here in Birth, Glazer’s first venture into American mainstream filmmaking for New Line Cinema, but the subject matter, as well as Glazer’s ability to maintain an effective sense of underlying tension, make it at times an equally uneasy viewing experience.
Ten years after the death of her husband Sean, Anna (Nicole Kidman) decides to re-marry. It’s been a long period of grief and, while she hasn’t completely gotten over her loss, she knows it is time to move on and finally accepts the proposal of Joseph (Danny Huston), who she believes is a good and kind man who will look after her. On the day of her engagement however, a 10 year-old boy (Cameron Bright) shows up at her apartment and claims to be her dead husband. He tells her that she must not marry Joseph. Since the boy knows things about her Sean and Anna’s relationship that no one else could know, and she loved her husband so much, Anna is inclined to believe him, but how can she have a relationship with a young child?
Glazer sets the premise of Birth up very effectively and clearly with a strong opening sequence and he carries the film through to a powerful conclusion. Both these book-ending sequences show Glazer’s original dramatic touch, and both are effectively underscored by Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful, tinkling, mournful score. It's Desplat's fairytale-like score more than anything – even more than Nicole Kidman’s strong performance – that carries the film through the otherwise uneventful in-between period of the film. The majority of the film simply and straightforwardly plays out much as you would expect – questioning how much the boy really knows to see if he really could be Anna’s dead husband reincarnated, and seeing Anna, her fiancé and her family trying to cope with this. With a great cast that includes Lauren Bacall, Peter Stomare and Anne Heche, this is always worth watching, but the subject matter that Glazer tackles here is a difficult one – the bereavement, the mental states of characters who have suffered great loss or are looking for love, and a longing for meaning beyond death and on this premise, it isn't entirely convincing.
The method of dealing with this kind of material is far from conventional – a grown woman transferring her feelings of love for her dead husband onto a 10 year-old boy (a thematic subject which I assume is the only reason the film has an ‘R’ certificate in the United States), so Birth is a little more challenging than most romantic movies dealing with the themes of bereavement (Ghost, Truly Madly Deeply). It deals not only with the loss of a lover, and the closed captivity of that curtailed relationship for Anna, who wants to keep what is dead alive and moving forward, but finding the reincarnation of her love in young boy makes this relationship rather more problematic than the normal cinematic revenant. This impossible relationship is dealt with effectively in Birth on at least one side of the equation. When the 10 year-old Sean turns up like a spectre of that relationship – the death of Anna’s husband 10 years previously and the birth of the child effectively mirroring the period of Anna’s emotional captivity – Anna is undoubtedly troubled about the implications but, hesitant about committing to another form of captivity in marriage to Joseph, she is willing to believe. The film is rather less psychologically convincing from the young boy’s point of view, particularly with a blankly unreadable performance by Cameron Bright, but also in its attempt and failure to provide a rational explanation for the boy’s behaviour. The film tries not to be too ambiguous or flirt too heavily with the potentially controversial subject matter (based on a script by Jean-Claude Carrière), working out a conclusion that tries too hard to rationally explain what has happened. This is obviously essential for a mainstream film, but feels a little too evasive of the uncomfortable issues the film raises. And in that case why raise them at all?
The Canadian Region 1 DVD of Birth is released by Alliance Atlantis. The DVD comes with a reversable cover with the French title of the film 'Naissance'.
Alliance Atlantis don't have a particularly good reputation for their production of Canadian editions of US Region 1 releases, although they do occasionally get a transfer right. This isn’t one of those occasions, although I believe the US edition is not much better. The transfer, presented anamorphically at a 1.85:1 ratio, is riddled with macro-blocking compression artefacts. Additionally, the image shows too much grain that is not natural film grain which gives the film an overall hazy softness. Blacks are flat and murky – figures in dark evening dress in a party scene, for example, blend into a homogenous mass, rendered indistinguishable from dark backgrounds (see screenshot example below). I’m not sure how Alliance Atlantis author their DVDs, but a barebones release of a less than 2-hour film on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc should not flicker throughout with compression artefacts. It’s also possible that the dullish tones of the film are a stylistic effect, but the picture should surely be clearer than it is here. The evident problems with the transfer however are not enough to spoil the film entirely.
The original English audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and it works very well, particularly in its presentation of the music score, creating an enveloping environment for the film to work in. It doesn’t quite have a fullness of sound that you might expect however and is not always clear or robust enough.
English hard of hearing subtitles are provided, as are Spanish and French options.
The only extra feature on this release is the Theatrical Trailer (1:58) for Birth, which is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, as well as a number of trailers for other releases.
Jonathan Glazer again demonstrates a fine sense of style and a strong ability to sustain a mood throughout Birth, but although the film tackles the difficult subject matter of the fragility of human emotions around the subject of death and identity, it doesn’t really delve into it with any real depth and fails to confront the central issue it raises, in the end offering too easy and conventional an explanation, which doesn’t really answer anything. Alliance Atlantis’ DVD presentation of a dark film is not particularly impressive, but certainly adequate.